Heroic or medieval fantasy has never had an easy time on the Tube. The related genres of horror and urban fantasy have done just fine: Thriller, Twilight Zone, Buffy are the most obvious examples. But the particular problems of filming a fantastic world - costumes, SFX, elaborate sets - have led to sword and sorcery of the low budget camp variety, such as Xena: Warrior Princess or Merlin.
That we now have two shows dealing with medieval fantasy that actually have large budgets is due to two trends; the critical and financial success of cable adult oriented drama series such as Deadwood and the The Wire, and the terrifyingly lucrative Lord of the Rings series in cinema. Not only did Peter Jackson demonstrate how much cash could be made in the heroic fantasy genre, he also used special effects in an unprecedented way to make the world and creature building affordable.
HBO’s Game of Thrones and Showtime’s Camelot are both fairly large budget fantasy series that have some points in common; intrigue over rulership of a warring land, sweeping shots of real and CGI landscapes, nudity (mostly of the nubile female variety), sudden violence, and as a sign of the dark ages none but the prettiest of the leads use hair conditioner. The series part ways in content, writing, and direction.
Camelot often seems to be shot with a shaky cam - as if hand-held cameras provide verisimilitude in the fifth century A.D. The sets vary from fairly convincing to a village in the first episode which resembled a low budget renaissance faire. The CGI castles have those Ridley Scott style CGI birds fluttering around them. The dialogue is often a bit too modern. And the acting varies wildly. Joseph Cambell Bower’s Arthur and Peter Mooney’s Kay play as if they have a real relationship. Joseph Fein’s Merlin often speaks in short growly sentences of one word. At. A. Time. Like. This. His quiet noshing on the scenery should be more fun than it is, and it isn’t. The standout is Eva Green as Morgan. She’s found the exact right tone in the midst of the hyperbolic action going on around her, and even her overacting appears calculated to manipulate the characters around her, rather than the audience. If the show were better, she would be looking at an Emmy nod.
I’ve only seen the first episode, which underlines my main points about this series, fairly watchable but pretty forgettable, except for Green. It might be solid fun
for streaming on a rainy Saturday, but it isn’t really adding anything new or interesting to the Arthurian mythos.
Game of Thrones takes us into very different territory. Based on George R.R. Martin’s dark and fascinating best selling novels, this series is beautifully shot and strongly acted. Where Camelot hurtles through the first episode to establish the plot, Game of Thrones is slowly and carefully building its world. I’ll have more to say about the series as a literary adaptation once the first season is over, but I’d at least like to mention that the dialogue stands out as excellent, often because they use Martin’s.
Standouts in a strong cast are Sean Bean, Mark Addy, and Maisie Williams. Bean’s Ned Stark is pretty much perfect, though I wish the character allowed for some more of the wry humor and menace that Bean can do so well. Maisie Williams, as Arya, is one of the best kids I’ve seen on screen. I also like Kit Harrington’s earnest and smart Jon Snow and the quiet menace of Lena Headey’s Cersei Lannister. And Peter Dinklage pretty much upstages everyone as Tyrion Lannister - a performance that will get an Emmy nod if there is any justice. There’s an overall pleasure, as there has been with other HBO series, of watching excellent actors feed off each other.
The direction and cinematography are often wonderful, and if the pacing feels slow at times it’s fascinating to watch a show that trusts us to listen to the characters. At the halfway point of the series I’m struck by how often people tell stories to each other, rather than using flashbacks, which adds to the sense of how medieval people build their own worldviews. There’s also a sense of how this medieval world functions - with the nobles living well but dangerously and the poorer sorts often at the mercy of their betters. They have captured, from the very first episode, Martin’s technique of making sure that no characters are safe, especially the ones of whom you are fond.